Monday, January 12, 2009

Henderson Goes Into Hall Despite Never Retiring

Rickey Henderson is going into the Hall of Fame. When he does, will he finally announce his retirement?

Henderson, 50, is as sure of a first-ballot HOFer as you're going to find nowadays. Over 3,000 hits, more than 1,400 stolen bases. Even though it was tough, for a time, to keep track of whether he was playing for Oakland or the Yankees.

But one thing was certain: Rickey WAS playing, somewhere. He started playing in the big leagues in 1979, and only stopped in 2003 because nobody else would hire him. After his MLB career, Rickey played in the minors. It didn't matter where, as long as he was playing baseball. And leading off. And stealing bases.

It's fairly safe to say that whatever mold was used to make Rickey Henderson, it's been crushed into pieces by now. Probably the moment he made his '79 debut, as a matter of fact (he doubled in his first at-bat, and stole his first base one plate appearance later).

Yet Rickey really never did officially retire; not that I know of, anyway. He only in 2007 spoke of it, finally admitting that he was "probably" finished playing.

He was 48 at the time.

I wasn't a huge Henderson fan, but I respect what he did. We get enraptured with the "walk-off home run", and rightly so. That wins games, after all. But Henderson became the artisan of the lead-off home run, and those were pretty important, too. They set the tone, and nobody did it better, or as often, as Rickey Henderson. Plus, he stole all those bases, even though everyone in the stadium knew he was going to be running. He was the thief who laughed at the Brinks Home Security sign on the front lawn.

Here's former big league pitcher Mike Flanagan: "He was, by far, the most dynamic leadoff hitter I've ever seen. If you got 2-0 on him, you were fearful of throwing it down the middle because he could hit a home run. But if you threw ball three, he was going to walk, and then he's on second base. We had many, many long discussions on our pitching staff about how we could control this guy. He was irritating, infuriating and great."

Irritating, infuriating, and great.

That might be the most apt summary of any player's career that I've ever read.

Welcome to the Hall, Rickey. Even if you never did retire.


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